The choice made in 1920 to neither support nor oppose any political party or candidate for public office continues today to ensure that the League’s voice is heard above the tumult of party politics. The nonpartisan policy has added strength to the League’s positions on issues and has made possible wide acceptance of League voter service and other educational activities.
At the same time, the League is a political organization and encourages members to participate fully in the political party of their choice. It is an advantage to the League to have politically active members and, equally important, it can be a personally satisfying experience.
Each League’s board of directors is responsible for drafting and carrying out a nonpartisan policy in its community. In order to ensure the credibility of the League as a nonpartisan organization, the board also is responsible for seeing that both its members and the public understand the League’s nonpartisan policy.
Formulating a Nonpartisan Policy
Each League board should formulate a policy that best reflects existing conditions in its League, as well as the political climate and traditions in its community. The policy should include specific guidelines to govern the political activities of its board and off-board members.
The following are some basic elements that should be included in your League’s nonpartisan policy:
- A statement of the nonpartisan nature of the organization,
- Guidelines on permissible activities for board members,
- Restrictions on certain board positions (e.g., president and voters service chair),
- A policy on how to handle resignations when a board member resigns to engage in political activity.
Key points to consider in this process include the following:
- The sensitivity or visibility of specific board assignments or functions,
- The extent to which the public identifies a board or off-board member’s activities with those of the League,
- The sensitivity or visibility of specific board assignments or functions,
- An overall assessment of the League’s credibility as an effective nonpartisan political organization in the community,
- The visibility associated with a specific political activity (such as participating in partisan social affairs, signing petitions, making campaign contributions, or serving as a campaign manager).
Since times and conditions change, it is essential that the board discuss its nonpartisan political policy annually and update it as necessary. The ideal time to review your League’s policy is at the orientation meeting for your new board, when you clarify the policy-making role of the board as a whole, as well as individual responsibilities. It is particularly important to review the nonpartisan policy before specific cases come up. Even if no changes are necessary, the review is important, both to educate board members and to anticipate situations that might cause difficulty later.
Board members usually have party affiliations and should certainly carry out the responsibilities of every voter in exercising the franchise, including the responsibility to become informed about candidates.
Elective (Public) Office
While board members generally may not run for elective office, the definition of what constitutes an elective office varies in our grassroots organization. For example, some New England town meetings consist of elected representatives, and League board members sometimes run for these offices. Members of charter commissions and delegates to state constitutional conventions are often elected, yet many Leagues allow board members to run in these elections. It is extremely difficult to make a blanket statement to cover all situations, especially since running for office is a natural outgrowth of League training. Each League, therefore, will have to decide on its policy and judge each situation as it occurs.
If a board member declares for an elective office other than one determined permissible by the League, the board decides when the member should resign from the board. The wording of the public notice of the resignation should, if possible, include the name of the person succeeding to the board position and should avoid the appearance of endorsing the resigning board member’s candidacy. Resigning from the board does not mean resigning from the League, nor does it mean that the board member cannot serve on the board later on; the board decides when that is appropriate. Another possible option is for the person to take an off-board position if there is a specific project or activity that still needs their contribution.
Public Commissions and Committees
The League sometimes takes the initiative in recommending people to serve on appointed public commissions and committees. Board members are often asked to serve on such committees, either as individuals or as representatives of the League. Such service enables League leaders to further League program goals. However, even if a League member represents the League on a commission, the board is not bound to support that commission’s recommendations. If the recommendations differ from or cover more points than the League’s position, the board should clarify the League stance and what it does and does not endorse in the commission’s report.
The League’s nonpartisan stance does not mean that the League should not get involved in controversy. Someone may accuse the League of violating its nonpartisan policy because of what is viewed as a partisan position on a controversial political topic. Or a candidate may refuse to participate in a candidate forum or to provide information for a voter guide. A League will be a strong and effective political force to the degree that it can deal with and accept controversy, live with uncertainty, and avoid using its nonpartisan policy as a shield for not getting involved. Good planning, accurate information and remaining polite but firm will go a long way toward defusing such situations.
Joining a coalition is an effective use of resources to work on an issue, yet Leagues are sometimes concerned that coalitions to which they belong may eventually endorse candidates. This need not always keep the League out of a coalition it might otherwise join, but it is important to think through the ramifications for the League’s policy of not supporting or opposing candidates for political office. If a coalition that the League belongs to or is considering joining will concentrate its activities on supporting or opposing candidates, then the League should not participate.
Sample Discussion Outline
I. Purpose of the League's nonpartisan policy
Nonpartisanship toward candidates and political parties is critical to the effectiveness of the League's unique voter service/citizen information work. It also provides a strong foundation for the work done in support of issues. Action on legislation and ballot proposals is more effective when the public and the legislators believe that the League's conclusions are based on merit rather than politics.
II. Applying the nonpartisan policy at the local League level
Discuss each aspect of potential policy and refer to the basic elements and key points outlined above. Don't try to build a policy statement around an individual case. A final nonpartisan statement should be rooted in principle, rather than constructed around individual situations.
Determine what, if any, limitations should be put on board members who participate in the following activities:
- Making financial contributions to candidates and/or political parties;
- Participating in behind-the-scenes efforts for candidates, such as telephoning, stuffing envelopes, writing position papers, etc.;
- Publicly supporting a candidate for partisan political office;
- Circulating or signing nominating petitions, referendum petitions;
- Attending coffees or other gatherings to meet candidates;
- Holding coffees for candidates seeking political office and/or nonpartisan office;
- Attending fundraising functions for candidates or political parties;
- Holding an appointive political office;
- Holding office in another organization that supports or opposes political parties or candidates.
Determine if each limitation should apply to all board members or only to those who hold what might be viewed as “sensitive” portfolios (such as the president and voter service director).
It is general League policy that:
- The political activities of a spouse or relative of a board member should be considered separate and distinct from the activities of the board member;
- Public notices released by a League announcing the resignation of a board member to run for political office should be carefully worded to avoid the appearance of endorsing the resigning member's candidacy; and,
- The League's nonpartisan reputation is strong enough to ensure that personal gifts from office holders or candidates can be accepted without being misconstrued as endorsement of the donors.
III. Finalizing agreement
After discussing each consideration and reaching agreement on the individual items, have the recorder read back that which has been agreed upon. When starting from the very beginning, appoint three or four board members to write a nonpartisan policy statement based on the areas of agreement and bring it to the next board meeting for approval. If amending an existing policy, amend it at the same meeting.
After approval, all board members should have copies of the statement. Nominating committee members should also have copies and should alert prospective officers and directors to the nonpartisan responsibility of each board member. The policy may be published in your bulletin; it is important for your members to understand, however, that they are encouraged to be politically active and that the policy only applies to members of the board. Remember to send a copy to your state/national League liaison.